Looking into the self that is no self: an examination of subjectivity in 'Beloved.'

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Looking into the self that is no self: an examination of subjectivity in 'Beloved.'

African American Review, Fall, 1998 by Jennifer L. Holden-Kirwan

In a 1989 interview with Bonnie Angelo of Time magazine, Toni Morrison discussed the desire of our nation to repress the memory of slavery. According to Morrison, the enslavement of Africans and African Americans in the United States is "something that the characters [in Beloved] don't want to remember, I don't want to remember, black people don't want to remember, white people don't want to remember" (120). Yet her novel forces its reader to recognize the existence and conditions of slavery in a nation that would prefer to forget that such a crime was ever committed. While Morrison, like Sethe and Paul D., would prefer to repress the memory of slavery, she feels compelled to create a space in which the "enslaved" may finally speak. As Elizabeth Abel has pointed out, "Beloved deliberately represents captive persons as subjects rather than objects of oppression, and does so primarily in a discourse on the hunger, passion, and violence generated in the 'too thick' mother-daughter bond produced by the conditions of slavery" (199).

While the end of slavery sought to transform objects (slaves) into subjects (free men and women), the characters in Beloved find the passage into subjectivity somewhat elusive. In this essay, I explore the question of Beloved's identity and how her identity affects her own subjectivity, as well as that of Denver and Sethe. First, I explain how Beloved's perpetual references to a slave ship experience function as her primal scene: a traumatic event in one's childhood which may be considered the cause of one's adult neurosis (Freud 213-34). After interpreting the primal scene, I discuss the complexity of Beloved's identity. As Margaret Atwood asserts, "There's a lot more to Beloved than any one character can see, and she manages to be many things to several people" (3). Like the novel itself, the character of Beloved resists a singular interpretation. However, if for a moment one were to disregard the multiplicity of Beloved's voice and focus instead on the voice as a single consciousness, one would find a powerful way into the novel. This schema allows the reader to consider another possible interpretation of Beloved's identity. Finally, I examine the characters' desire for subjectivity and the extent to which their desires are fulfilled.

Identifying the Primal Scene

In her article "Toni Morrison's Ghost: The Beloved Who Is Not Beloved," Elizabeth B. House informs us that "unraveling the mystery of . . . [Beloved's] identity depends to a great extent upon first deciphering chapters four and five of Part II" in Beloved. House provides a detailed explanation of the obscure references in the narrative, pointing out "how white slave traders . . . captured the girl and her mother" and "put them aboard an abysmally crowded slave ship" (18). Her observation lies in contrast to that of Carol Rubens, who views this narrative sequence as Beloved's "escape from the grave," explaining that "the hold of a slave ship seems [only] fleetingly invoked" (1135). To readers unfamiliar with slave ship descriptions and the events that transpired on board these vessels, Morrison's eight-page account might seem "fleetingly invoked" and much "too vague." Jean Wyatt argues that the unannounced appearance of the slave ship monologue is intended to throw readers off balance: "Since Morrison does not identify these scattered perceptions as observations of life on a slave ship or tell how Beloved came to be there or give any coordinates of time and place, readers are baffled: they have no idea where they are." Wyatt goes on to explain how the confusion that the reader experiences in this section of the text "imitates the disorientation of the Africans who were thrown into slave ships without explanation" (480). While I agree with Wyatt that some readers may stumble on the initial appearance of the sequence, I believe that the reader who is educated about the Middle Passage will quickly recognize the details of the narrative, finding it extremely vivid and tangible.

In Black Cargo, Richard Howard illustrates the condition and treatment of African men, women, and children aboard a typical slave ship. Quoting Harry Johnston, he tells how the kidnapped people were kept

"enclosed under grated hatchways, between deck. The space was so low that they sat between each other's legs, and stowed so close together that there was no possibility of lying down, or at all changing their positions by night or day. As they belonged to, and Were shipped on account of different individuals, they were all branded like sheep . . . burnt with a red-hot iron." (47)

With this account in mind, the reader can recognize what Morrison is referring to with phrases like "I am always crouching," "someone is thrashing but there is no room to do it in," and especially the repeated "a hot thing" (210). Once the sequence has been recognized as an experience from the Middle Passage, the reader is able to translate previously ambiguous references. The "men without skin" are clearly white sailors who offer their urine ("morning water") and moldy ("sea-colored") bread to the dehydrated Africans (211). The "little hill," a pile of dead bodies, is pushed from the bridge of the ship into the ocean. Later, it appears as if one of the white sailors or officers takes the young girl "inside" a cabin and rapes her: "I am going to be in pieces," she says, "he hurts where I sleep he puts his finger there I drop the food and break into pieces" (212). These and other allusions to the treatment and condition of Africans during the Middle Passage emerge in the narrative of Beloved.

The nineteen- or twenty-year-old woman who arrives at Sethe's house possesses the subjectivity of the African girl held captive on the slave ship in Part II. Nearly every reference the young woman makes, or question that she asks, derives from either her experience in Africa before being captured or her experience on the slave ship during the Middle Passage. The intensity of her memory indicates that the events of and surrounding the slave ship represent her primal scene.(1) In his article" 'Rememory': Primal Scenes and Constructions in Toni Morrison's Novels," Ashraf H. A. Rushdy redefines Freud's notion of the primal scene "as the critical event (or events) whose significance to the narrated life becomes manifest only at a secondary event, when by a preconscious association the primal scene is recalled" (303). At times, when recounting the primal scene, Beloved experiences visual and auditory hallucinations which seem to transport her back to the ship. At other times, an external "event" or sensation recalls the primal scene. For example, at one point, Beloved and Denver are in the cold house when Beloved "sits down on the pallet and, laughing, lies back looking at the cracklights above" (123). The light seeping through the roof triggers a memory from the slave ship ("daylight comes through the cracks" [201]), and Beloved begins to hallucinate, saying," 'I'm like this'" as she "bends over, curls up and rocks. Her eyes go no place; her moaning is so small Denver can hardly hear it" (124). The chapter ends with Beloved pointing to an invisible face which she says is her own.

On another occasion, Denver asks Beloved to describe the place she stayed in before coming to 124. Beloved describes the place as "dark" and "hot. Nothing to breathe down there and no room to move in." She proceeds to lie down on her side and curl up, explaining to Denver," 'I'm small in that place. I'm like this here.'" Having already presumed that Beloved is her dead sister brought back to life, Denver believes that Beloved is describing some form of afterlife and asks her who she was able to see while "'over there.'" Beloved does not know their names, but she does recall seeing "'heaps. A lot of people is down there. Some is dead'" (75). Beloved's references to" 'down there' "may apply to the hull of the slave ship where she is "not big" and "cannot fall because there is no room to" (210-11). When Denver questions the origin of Beloved's name, the young woman replies," 'In the dark my name is Beloved'" (75). Again, Denver associates darkness with another world. However, Beloved could also be referring to the darkness of the slave ship where "ghosts without skin stuck their fingers in her and said beloved in the dark and bitch in the light" (241).

Beloved's references to the primal scene continue to arise and be interpreted in various ways by the other characters throughout the novel. When Beloved asks Sethe," 'Where your diamonds?' "Sethe assumes that she is asking about Mrs. Garner's crystal earrings. However, Beloved may be seeking her mother's "shining," "sharp earrings" that the "men without skin" stole on the slave ship (211-12). When Denver accuses Beloved of choking Sethe in the Clearing, Beloved innocently replies," 'I kissed her neck. I didn't choke it. The circle of iron choked it'" (101). In the primal scene, Beloved views the "circle around her [mother's] neck" and wishes that she could "bite" it off (211). On another occasion, Beloved is humming an African song (175), which is most likely the tune she hears through the teeth of "the dying man" on the ship: "his singing was soft . . . of the place where a woman takes flowers away from their leaves and puts them in a round basket" (211). When Beloved explains how she "got on the bridge" and searched for her mother's face, Denver assumes that she is referring to a bridge in the woods (75). However, Beloved is most likely referring to the bridge of the slave ship (House 20).

Near the end of the novel, Beloved becomes almost solely preoccupied with the primal scene: "Sometimes she screamed, 'Rain! Rain!' and clawed her throat . . . . Other times Beloved curled up on the floor, her wrists between her knees, and stayed there for hours.... she would go to Sethe, run her fingers over the woman's teeth while tears slid from her wide black eyes" (250). When Beloved cries out" 'Rain!' "she appears to be remembering "standing in the rain falling . . . falling like the rain is," while observing the death of her mother from the ship's bridge (212). In curling up on the floor, Beloved seems to be illustrating the incessant "crouching" in the hull of the slave ship (210). Running her fingers over Sethe's teeth and crying, Beloved seems to be envisioning the "pretty little teeth" of the dead man on her face and mourning his absence (212).

When the primal scene leaves the realm of hallucination for Beloved and appears to repeat itself in the historical present, Beloved suddenly vanishes. As she sees Sethe "running away from her" and "feels the emptiness in [her] hand," Beloved knows that she is being left "alone. Again" (262). The scene directly parallels Beloved's loss of her African mother on the slave ship. Standing on the ship's bridge, Beloved helplessly watches as the slave traders amass a pile of dead bodies and push them into the sea. Beloved's horror is intensified when she discovers that her mother has willfully joined the mound of people: "the men without skin . . . push my own man through they do not push her she goes in the little hill is gone" (212). Her mother's suicide causes Beloved to feel abandoned and betrayed. As Beloved stands on the porch of 124, she once again experiences the abandonment of her mother (whom she considers Sethe to be): ". . . she is running into the faces of the people out there, joining them and leaving Beloved behind . . . . They make a hill. A hill of black people, falling" (262).

The imagined re-enactment of her mother's suicide and the ensuing feelings of loss, emptiness, and betrayal overwhelm Beloved to such an extent that she instantaneously disappears. When Freud and one of his patients uncovered the primal scene, where the patient's disorder originated, the discovery enabled the patient to overcome his or her illness. By encouraging the patient to confront his/her primal scene instead of turning away from it, Freud believed that the recovery process was expedited. Beloved does not retract from previous encounters with her primal scene, since in those instances she is able to control the memory. In the final scene, however, Beloved is confronted with the traumatic experience and possesses no control over what is happening. It is at this moment of loss of all control that Beloved flees the primal scene.

Unraveling Beloved's Identity

Since the publication of Morrison's novel in 1987, the identity of Beloved has perplexed some readers, annoyed others, and intrigued the majority. Most readers and critics share Thomas R. Edwards's perspective that Beloved "is unquestionably the dead daughter's spirit in human form" (18). However, Walter Clemons argues that, since the murdered baby could not have remembered passage on a slave ship, "Beloved is also a ghost from the slave ships of Sethe's ancestry" (75). Deborah Horvitz expands upon Clemons's assertion, concluding that Beloved "is not only Sethe's two-year-old daughter, whom she murdered eighteen years ago; she is also Sethe's African mother" (158). House contradicts all prior critics by contending that Beloved "is not a supernatural being of any kind but simply a young woman who has herself suffered the horrors of slavery" (17). The many interpretations of Beloved's identity reveal the complexity of Morrison's character. Not only is she read differently by different characters in the novel but also by different readers of the novel. Each new interpretation of Beloved adds another layer to her already thick identity.

My reading of Beloved differs from the interpretations cited above. Since the child that Sethe murders is born in America and never travels the Middle Passage, the proposal that Beloved is solely the reincarnated baby seems highly unlikely, if not impossible. Horvitz's assertion that Sethe's murdered daughter and slave mother share identities in the character of Beloved seems equally problematic. Horvitz explains that at certain times in the novel the dead child speaks, at other times Sethe's mother speaks, and in some cases the identities are conflated. For example, "Beloved responds to Sethe's entreaties not only in the language of the murdered daughter but also in the tortured language of the 'woman from the sea.' "In Horvitz's perspective, "Death and the Middle Passage evoke the same language" (162). I find this comparison somewhat disturbing, as it seems to discount the horror of the Middle Passage by equating a factual historical experience with a conjectural otherworldly state. Morrison's depiction contains factual details regarding the physical and mental condition of captive Africans. When Horvitz regards the sequence as both an account of a slave ship and an otherworldly experience, she allows readers (herself included) to disbelieve part or all of the sequence.

House argues that "several years" pass between the time Beloved leaves the slave ship and "arrives at the creek behind Sethe's house" (20). To account for this gap, she looks to Sethe's initial assumption that "Beloved had been locked up by some whiteman for his own purposes, and never let out the door" (119). Home utilizes this conclusion to explain the smoothness of Beloved's skin, the scar under her chin, and the source of her name. If Beloved had been held captive by a white man in the 1870s, the probability of her skin's being like "new" and her only bodily injury being a small scar under her chin seems rather slight. In recalling her captivity by two white men that lasted over a year, Ella informs Sethe," 'You couldn't think up... what them two done to me'" (119). Based upon Ella's unspeakable horror, which she "remembered every bit of," Beloved would most likely have endured the same type of treatment. Yet House neglects either to notice or to address the fact that Beloved makes no references to that period in her life - a period that she surely would have had memory of (as does Ella) if it had occurred. It is interesting that, while House points out the rape of Beloved that occurs on the slave vessel, she appears to misrecognize Beloved's reference to the attack later on in the novel. House assumes that the "ghosts without skin" who "stuck their fingers in her and said beloved in the dark and bitch in the light" are the white men/man who held her captive in a house. However, as I have previously explained, this reference most likely applies to Beloved's rape on the slave ship.

While I disagree with Horvitz's assertion that Beloved shares both the identity of the two-year-old baby and Sethe's mother, I do agree with the part of her argument which asserts that Beloved possesses the identity of Sethe's slave mother. I will argue that the African girl in the Middle Passage sequence is Sethe's mother before she reaches America and gives birth to Sethe, the only baby she did not throw away (62).

"Of that place where she was born (Carolina maybe? or was it Louisiana?)" Sethe remembers singing and dancing, but close to nothing about her mother (30). Upon Beloved's arrival, however, Sethe's repressed memories of her mother slowly begin to re-emerge. When Sethe sees the young woman's face for the first time, she has an uncontrollable need to urinate. Sethe recalls having not "had an emergency that unmanageable . . . since she was a baby girl, being cared for by the eight-year-old girl who pointed out her mother to her"(51). Sethe's reaction of the appearance of Beloved may be viewed in Freudian terms as" 'das Unheimliche' ": an uncanny experience which "is in reality nothing new or alien, but something which is familiar and old-established in the mind and which has become alienated from it only through the process of repression" (241). The sight of Beloved causes Sethe to reenact a childhood experience - one that she specifically relates to her mother. In his essay entitled "The 'Uncanny,' "Freud reveals how the source of uncanny feelings in an adult may be either an "infantile fear" or "an infantile wish or even merely an infantile belief" (233). Since Beloved's uncanniness arouses neither fear nor particular pleasure in Sethe, one may view the uncanny feeling as mere recognition of a repressed figure from her childhood. While Sethe initially makes the connection between the present and the past experience, she later attributes her weak bladder to a subconscious recognition of her dead daughter, eliding all possible connections of Beloved to her mother.

Sethe reveals more details about her mother as the novel progresses. In one instance, Sethe recalls Nan telling her that she and Sethe's mother "were together from the sea" and "taken up many times by the crew" (62). Nan and Sethe's mother were on the same slave ship during the Middle Passage and were both raped by white sailors. Their experiences aboard the vessel parallel the experience that Beloved relates in section II. The "language" that Nan and Sethe's mother spoke differs from the language Sethe uses now. The pronunciation of her mother's words also differs, as illustrated and emphasized on page 31 when her Ma'am calls her "Seth - thuh" instead of "Sethe." Beloved's "gravelly voice . . . with a cadence not like" Sethe's or Denver's and her peculiar expressions, like "my woman" instead of "mother," parallel Sethe's memory of her mother's unfamiliar language and unusual accent (60). Of course, the language and accent that pervade Beloved's and Sethe's mother's speech are residually African.

The "song and dance" that Sethe remembers from her childhood also originate in Africa (30). In particular, Sethe recalls how

. . . sometimes they danced the antelope. The men as well as the ma'ams, one of whom was certainly her own. They shifted shapes and became something other. Some unchained, demanding others whose feet knew her pulse better than she did. (31)

When dancing for Denver, Beloved does "a little two-step, two-step, make-a-new-step, slide, slide and strut on down." Although her dance is untitled, it is possible that Beloved's movements emulate some kind of African dance. The exhilaration that Sethe recalls seeing in the men and women who danced the "antelope" is mirrored in Beloved's dance, as she and Denver move "round and round the tiny room," swinging "to and fro, to and fro, until exhausted" (74).

The "song" that Sethe claims to have invented to sing to her children appears to be of partly African origin as well. When Beloved begins humming a particular melody, Sethe assumes that the young woman is her dead child, since she is confident that "nobody knows that song but me and my children" (176). Beloved does not sing any of the song's lyrics; she only hums the song's tune. As an adult, Sethe made up the words to the song, but the melody of the song most likely derives from the place "before Sweet Home" (62). Since she "could neither recall nor repeat" the language spoken in that place, it would be impossible for Sethe to recreate the words to any African songs. However, the melody of a specific song may very well have been subconsciously retained and revived later on in her adult life. As pointed out earlier, the origin of the song for Beloved is on the slave ship, where she listens to the "song" of the man who lies above her (211). Apparently, the melody that Beloved hears in the Middle Passage and recites in Sethe's home is the same melody that Sethe hears as a child while in the presence of her mother and/or her mother's people.

In describing her mother's appearance, Sethe remarks that "she'd had the bit so many times she smiled. When she wasn't smiling she smiled, and I never saw her own smile" (203). Beloved is frequently described as wearing a perpetual smile. When she emerges from the stream, she is described as an unusual sight, causing people who may have seen her to hesitate "before approaching her. Not because she was wet, or dozing or had what sounded like asthma, but because amid all that she was smiling" (50). When the thirty singing women assemble in Sethe's front yard to chase away the "devil-child," Beloved remains standing on the porch "naked and smiling" (261). Even after Sethe races across the yard to attack Edward Bodwin, leaving Beloved "alone," she continues to smile (262). People had informed Sethe that "it was the bit that made her [mother] smile when she didn't want to" (203). While Beloved shows no physical indications of ever having worn a bit, she occasionally illustrates the uncontrollable smile of a woman who has.

The strongest piece of evidence identifying Beloved as Sethe's mother can be observed in the final chapter of the novel. "When once or twice Sethe tried to assert herself--be the unquestioned mother whose word was law and who knew what was best - Beloved slammed things," rejecting Sethe's role as mother (242). Eventually, Sethe relinquishes her position as Beloved's mother altogether and falls into the position of Beloved's daughter:

Beloved bending over Sethe looked the mother, Sethe the teething child, for other than those times when Beloved needed her, Sethe confined herself to a corner chair. The bigger Beloved got, the smaller Sethe became . . . . (250)

This reversal of roles seems to function as the unveiling of an alternate identity for each woman, even though none of the characters in the novel seem to recognize the significance of the transformation.

Beloved's inability to recognize Sethe's other identity and the other characters' inability to recognize Beloved's other identity can be explained through the Lacanian concept of meconnaissance or misrecognition. In her article "Fassbinder and Lacan: A Reconsideration of Gaze, Look and Image," Kaja Silverman describes meconnaissance as the "inevitable outcome" in the Lacanian diagram of the formation of identity (78). Silverman reveals that, while the gaze of the other "confirms and sustains the subject's identity," it does not determine the "form which that identity assumes" (72). Rather, the gaze serves to project what is called the "screen onto the object," and it is at the level of the screen, and not the gaze, that identity is formed (75). Therefore, the identity of the characters in the novel is established through the screen which each character projects upon the other. An example of this projection of the screen can be seen early in the novel when Sethe, Paul D., and Denver describe the ghost of Sethe's baby. Sethe refers to the temperamental ghost as "mad," not evil, whereas Denver considers the ghost "lonely and rebuked" (13). When Paul D. enters the red light emitted from the ghost, "a wave of grief soaked him so thoroughly he wanted to cry" (9). All characters posit the identity of the ghost as the murdered two-year-old child; however, each character perceives a different attitude in the ghost.

According to Silverman, Lacan's characterization of the screen "suggest[s] that it is no more possible to be seen than to see ourselves without the intervention of representation" (74). The screen that is projected onto the object functions as a representation of the object, and there is no limit as to the number of representations a single object may possess. Since the subject "cannot see the object without the intervention of the image/screen," the object that the subject sees is always misperceived (78). In other words, the subject can never see beyond the representation of the object - the representation that the subject creates him/herself.

In realizing the inevitability of meconnaissance, the reader may comprehend Sethe's and Denver's perception of Beloved as the embodiment of Sethe's dead child. Moreover, the reader may understand Sethe's and Denver's inability to perceive the subjectivity of Beloved as that of the African girl on the slave ship and the identity of Beloved as Sethe's slave mother. Understanding the concept of meconnaissance also enables the reader to account for Beloved's recognition of Sethe as her mother. When Beloved opens her eyes for the first time in front of 124, she believes that Sethe's face is the "face I lost Sethe's is the face that left me [on board the slave ship]" (213). The screen that Beloved projects onto Sethe and the screen that Sethe and Denver project onto Beloved lead to "instance[s] of misunderstanding" throughout the novel: ". . . as the three women talk to each other, each person's understanding of what she hears is slanted by what she expects to hear" (House 22-23). As Lacan reveals, "The relation between the gaze and what one wishes to see involves a lure. The subject is presented as other than he is, and what one shows him is not what he wishes to see" (104). Here, meconnaissance determines the relationship of Beloved to Denver and Sethe as well as the relationship of Sethe to Beloved.

Searching for Subjectivity

When Beloved accuses Sethe of "leaving her behind. Of not being nice to her, not smiling at her," she seems to be referring to her mother, who left her behind on the slave ship. Sethe responds by "saying she had to get them out, away, that she had the milk all the time . . . [t]hat her plan was always that they would all be together on the other side, forever." Sethe hears what she expects her daughter would say and fails to comprehend the details of Beloved's accusations; Sethe assumes that Beloved's descriptions of starvation, rape, "dead men," and "ghosts without skin" apply to hell, purgatory, or some form of afterlife beyond Sethe's understanding and control (241). When Sethe relates to Beloved how she took care of her as a baby, Beloved denies her devotion. No matter what Sethe says, Beloved sits in a chair, "uncomprehending everything except that Sethe was the woman who took her face away, leaving her crouching in a dark, dark place, forgetting to smile" (252). The scene is tragic, as Sethe pleads for forgiveness from a woman who may not be her child, and Beloved begs for an explanation from a woman who may not be her mother. Each woman's desire can be read as a demand for recognition from the other. According to Barbara Shapiro, "The craving for mutual recognition - for simultaneously 'seeing' the beloved other and being 'seen' by her - propels the central characters in the novel" (201). Sethe and Beloved need to be recognized by the other in order to become subjects of the symbolic order.

In her article "Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: An American Grammar Book," Hortense Spillers describes how African people in slavery were "removed from the indigenous land and culture"; denied their African names, rituals, and kinship; and reduced to "quantities" and commodities instead of being subjects (72-73). Morrison explores this deprivation of subjectivity and the difficulty in reclaiming a selfhood in nearly all of the characters in Beloved. In a passage that illustrates the annihilation of slave subjectivity, Baby Suggs wonders,

Could she sing? (Was it nice to hear when she did?) Was she pretty? Was she a good friend? Could she have been a loving mother? A faithful wife? Have I got a sister and does she favor me? If my mother knew me would she like me? (140)

The opportunity to possess subjectivity is squelched at every possible venue as slavery denies Baby Suggs friendship, motherhood, wifehood, sisterhood, and daughterhood. While she gives birth to seven children, she is only allowed to "mother" her youngest son, Halle. "Under conditions of captivity, the offspring of the female does not 'belong' to the Mother, nor is s/he 'related' to the 'owner,' though the latter 'possesses' it" (Spillers 74). Even the name she is called by the Garners, Jenny Whitlow, is not her own name but rather the name that was inscribed on her sales ticket (142). In captivity, Baby Suggs knows nothing about her self - not even "what she looks like" (141). Therefore, when Halle succeeds in purchasing her freedom, she must go through a process of acquainting herself with a "self that was no self" (140).

The slave mother's absence greatly impairs the development of the child's subjectivity Sethe "didn't see her [own mother] but a few times out in the fields and once when she was working indigo." What she seems to remember most about her mother is the woman's absence. Without explicitly saying so, Sethe feels personally affronted by her missing mother "She never fixed my hair nor nothing," Sethe tells Denver and Beloved "She didn't even sleep in the same cabin most nights I remember." Sethe "guess[es]" that her mother had to sleep closer to the "line-up"; however, she suspects that her mother had merely wanted to sleep elsewhere and intentionally deserted her daughter at night (60-61). Even though Sethe is familiar with the conditions of slavery, she cannot help but resent her mother's incessant unavailability.

When Denver asks Sethe what had happened to her mother, Sethe suddenly remembers "something she had forgotten she knew. Something privately shameful that had seeped into a slit in her mind" (61). John Bowlby defines a form of repression in which "certain information of significance to the individual being [is] systematically excluded from further processing" as "'defensive exclusion'" (45). Sethe had defensively excluded the memory of her mother and, in particular, the events surrounding her mother's death. "When fragments of the information defensively excluded seep through, fragments of the behavior defensively deactivated become visible" (Bowlby 65). In recalling the fate of her mother, Sethe brings to the surface feelings of anger, bitterness, and sorrow. What she remembers is that, while trying to escape slavery, her mother had been captured, returned to the plantation, and hanged before the rest of the slaves. In order to reclaim her freedom, Sethe's mother had been willing to leave her child behind. Sethe finds it difficult to accept the fact that her "ma'am would run off and leave her daughter" (203). When Nan tells her that she was the only child her mother kept, Sethe initially feels "unimpressed" and later feels "angry" (62). Sethe infers that Nan wanted her to know how much her mother had cared about her, that she was loved because she had been the only child not thrown away. However, being allowed to live and being loved are not equivalent in Sethe's eyes. To Sethe, love means being "willing to die" for someone and being willing to "give [one's] privates to a stranger in return for a carving" (203). She would never consider deserting one's child an act of love.

Because of her mother's daily inaccessibility and subsequent death, Sethe is denied daughterhood. If her "ma'am had been able to get out of the rice long enough before they hanged her," Sethe would have been a "daughter[,] which is what [she] wanted to be" (203). Deprived of a mother, however, Sethe can never be a daughter and thus never achieve subjectivity through daughterhood; furthermore, the absence of the maternal look as a child continues to deprive Sethe of subjectivity as an adult. After attempting to ice-skate in the frozen creek with Denver and Beloved, Sethe falls into laughter, then tears. As Shapiro argues, "Her weeping . . . suggests a child's aching sense of loss or absence, specifically the absence of the confirming, legitimizing gaze of the other" (203-04). The "other" in this case is clearly Sethe's mother.

The look of the mother plays a critical role in the development of the child's identity. Silverman explains the importance of the mother's look in Lacan's account of the mirror stage: "What Lacan designates the 'gaze' also manifests itself initially within a space external to the subject, first through the mother's look as it facilitates the 'join' of infant and mirror image, and later through all of the many 'actual' looks with which it is confused" (56). Recalling that "the gaze [of the other] is that which confirms identity," the loss or denial of the mother's gaze (which is here conflated with the look) leads to the child's loss of identity.(2)

As a child, Sethe is denied access to the maternal look. In giving birth to her own children, she attempts to achieve subjectivity through motherhood. However, maternal subjectivity for Sethe is problematized by "a social order that systematically denied the subject position to those it defined as objects of exchange" (Wyatt 478). In other words, how could Sethe assert motherhood in a system that denied her that right? How could she attempt to be a subject when "anybody white could take your whole self for anything that came to mind. Not just work, kill, or maim you, but dirty you?" (251). Sethe realizes that as a slave her children would never belong to her but, as a free woman, her children would finally be hers "to love" (162).

In discussing motherhood in slavery, Barbara Christian reveals that "the African emphasis on woman as mother was drastically affected by the institution of slavery, since slave women and men were denied their natural right to their children" (219). She goes on to explain that "some slave women were so disturbed by the prospect of bearing children who could only be slaves that they did whatever they could to remain childless" (220). When faced with the decision of whether to kill her children or relinquish them to a life of slavery, Sethe races her children into the shed and quickly slices open her two-year-old's throat with a handsaw. According to Wyatt, Sethe's maternal subjectivity "is so embedded in her children that it . . . allows her to take the life of one of them" (476). In killing her own child, Sethe insists upon her subjectivity.

While Sethe attempts to locate her subjectivity in the maternal, Denver and Beloved attempt to legitimize their subjectivity through the gaze of the other. Upon Paul D.'s arrival, Denver fears losing Sethe's attention. Her brothers had run away, her grandmother had died, the children in town had alienated her, yet "none of that had mattered as long as her mother did not look away as she was doing now" (12). When Beloved appears, Denver no longer requires the attention of her mother, as Beloved's gaze "fulfills [her] desire to be acknowledged and recognized, to be a somebody rather than a nobody" (Devlin 891). For Denver, "it was lovely. Not to be stared at, not seen, but being pulled into view by the interested, uncritical eyes of the other." Being "stared at" by the other is seen as a threatening, castrating gaze. Being "seen" is merely being glimpsed at by the other but not acknowledged, whereas being viewed by the "interested, uncritical" other provides Denver with subjectivity. "Under that gaze" - the gaze of Beloved - Denver finds herself "needing nothing" (118). "At the scopic level," explains Lacan, "we are no longer at the level of demand, but of desire, of the desire of the Other" (104). Denver believes that her existence depends upon being visually "claimed" by the other (274). When she and Beloved go into the cold house for cider and Beloved suddenly disappears, Denver collapses into tears,

crying because she has no self. Death is a skipped meal compared to this. She can feel her thickness thinning, dissolving into nothing. She grabs at the hair at her temples to get enough to uproot it and halt the melting for a while. (123)

With the disappearance of Beloved's gaze, Denver believes that she too will disappear.

Because Beloved appears to consider Sethe her mother from the Middle Passage, Sethe's gaze is the only one that can restore Beloved's identity. In the slave ship sequence, Beloved believes that she and her mother share a single identity: "I am not separate from her there is no place where I stop" (210). The young girl engages in transitivism, viewing her mother as a mere extension of herself rather than as a separate subject. When the man above her "locks his eyes and dies on [her] face," she says that she is able to see her mother. However, what Beloved probably sees is her own face in the reflection of the dead man's glassed-over eyes. Beloved's loss of identity occurs when her mother "goes in" the sea. Since she is unable to distinguish between her mother's face and her own, Beloved's identity is cast into the water along with her mother's body. Without her mother, she has no "name," no "face," and "no one to want" her (212). When Beloved sees Sethe's face, she believes that Sethe's "is the one. She is the one I need" (76).

Sethe's mother Beloved comes back from the dead hoping to receive the attention, affection, and recognition from her mother that she had lost when her mother committed suicide on the slave ship. Shapiro accounts for Beloved's behavior in the following description:

If from the earliest years on, one's fundamental need to be recognized and affirmed as a human subject is denied, that need can take on fantastic and destructive proportions in the inner world: the intense hunger, the fantasized fear of either being swallowed or exploding, can tyrannize one's life even when one is freed from the external bonds of oppression. (209)

Because Beloved is not recognized as Sethe's mother, her need to establish her identity and regain her subjectivity remains unfulfilled. "Although she has claim, she is not claimed," and without being "claimed," Beloved "erupts into her separate parts, to make it easy for the chewing laughter to swallow her all away" (Morrison 274).

For Sethe, Beloved's disappearance means the dissolution of her own subjectivity. When Paul D. finally resolves to see her, he finds her in Baby Suggs's bed apparently awaiting her death. He tells Sethe of his intention to bathe and massage her feet, and she thinks to herself: "There's nothing to rub now and no reason to. Nothing left to bathe, assuming he even knows how" (272). Without Beloved, Sethe believes that her body, like her sell no longer exists. Only Paul D. can begin to convince her that she has access to subjectivity outside of the maternal, as he insists, "'You your best thing, Sethe. You are.' "Sethe's closing response," 'Me? Me?' "seems to imply that she may in time come to recognize and claim her own subjectivity (273).

While Beloved never attains subjectivity and Sethe only approaches it, Denver firmly asserts her subjectivity at the end of the novel. Denver knew that the only way to protect her mother from Beloved was "to leave the yard; step off the edge of the world, leave the two behind and go ask somebody for help" (243). However, she cannot find the strength to leave 124 without the encouragement of her deceased grandmother. Baby Suggs had once told Denver that "there was no defense" against white people. Now, she instructs her granddaughter to" 'know it, and go on out the yard. Go on'" (244). Realizing that not only Sethe's but her own well-being depended on her finding a job, Denver begins to regard herself as having a self: "It was a new thought, having a self to look out for and preserve" (252). She soon begins to work nights for the Bodwins and seeks a day job in a shirt factory as well. Denver's assertion of subjectivity is accentuated when Paul D. offers her his opinion on Beloved and she abruptly defines, saying," 'I have my own'" opinion (267). She acknowledges her own self and requires neither the look of her mother nor Beloved to attain subjectivity.

Through Beloved, Morrison reveals how slavery and the period of Reconstruction failed to grant subjectivity to many African Americans. Those who did gain subjectivity did so by their own assertion, as American society was reluctant legally and socially to acknowledge African Americans as valid citizens. For the characters in the novel, the transition from object to subject presents many obstacles; however, with the support and encouragement from voices of the past (Baby Suggs for Denver, Paul D. for Sethe), subjectivity becomes attainable.


1. The concept of the slave ship sequence as Beloved's primal scene was first pointed out to me by Kimberly J. Devlin.

2. The Lacanian description of the mirror stage explains the significance of the mother's look in the development of the infant. If the mother and infant are both slaves, however, their joining becomes problematic, as the experience of slavery challenges rather than facilitates the joining of the infant and its mirror image. Rather than disregarding the concept of the mirror stage altogether, I suggest utilizing Lacan's theory while keeping in mind that his psychological perspective is European-based. For further examples of the use of Western theorists in the study of Beloved, see Rushdy, Shapiro, and Wyatt.

Works Cited

Abel, Elizabeth. "Race, Class, and Psychoanalysis? Opening Questions." Conflicts in Feminism. Ed. Marianne Hirsh. New York: Routledge, 1990. 184-204.

Atwood, Margaret. "Haunted by Their Nightmares." New York Times Book Review 13 Sep. 1987: 1-3.

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Christian, Barbara. Black Feminist Criticism: Perspectives on Black Women Writers. New York: Pergamon P, 1985.

Clemons, Walter. "A Gravestone of Memories." Newsweek 28 Sep. 1987: 74-75.

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Howard, Richard. Black Cargo. London: Wayland, 1972.

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Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Knopf, 1987.

-----, "The Pain of Being Black." With Bonnie Angelo. Time 22 May 1989: 120-22.

Ruben, Merle. "Morrison's Novel of Slavery, Memory, and Human Kindness." Christian Science Monitor 5 Oct. 1987: 20.

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Rushdy, Ashraf H. A. "'Rememory': Primal Scenes and Constructions in Toni Morrison's Novels." Contemporary, Literature 31.3 (1990): 300-23.

Shapiro, Barbara. "The Bonds of Love and the Boundaries of Self in Toni Morrison's Beloved." Contemporary Literature 32.2 (1991): 194-209.

Silverman, Kaja. "Fassbinder and Lacan: A Reconsideration of the Gaze, Look and image." Camera Obscura 15 (1989): 54-85.

Spillers, Hortense. "Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: An American Grammer Book." Diacritics 17 (1987): 65-81.

Wyatt, Jean. "Giving Body to the Word: The Maternal Symbolic in Toni Morrison's Beloved." PMLA 108 (1993): 474-88.

Jennifer L. Holden-Kirwan is a lecturer at the University of California, Riverside. She would like to express her sincere appreciation to Kimberly J. Devlin and Carole-Anne Tyler for their assistance in the research of this paper.

COPYRIGHT 1998 African American Review

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group

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